A radical approach to behavioural problems, already successfully used with criminals and in areas of political unrest, is starting to prove its worth in schools. Low-level disruption is a stubborn problem in many classrooms, yet work done in three East Sussex schools shows that this technique makes it possible to get to the roots of problems and make fundamental changes.
Research published last month shows that by training staff and pupils as skilled mediators, and by making clear to everyone that conflicts will be dealt with in a fair and open way, these schools have been able to avert problems and make significant changes to their atmosphere.
"If this approach is embedded in the school at every level, if it gets into the everyday language and people know they will always have a chance to speak, calm down and listen, then you start to get a fundamental change in the culture of the school," says Roger Stanley, the former assistant head of Ratton School, a secondary school for 11- to 16-year-olds specialising in the performing arts, on the outskirts of Eastbourne.
The approach, known as restorative justice, is used to help rehabilitate criminals by allowing victims to tell offenders about the impact of their crimes and giving offenders a chance to understand what they've done and make amends. It is the philosophy behind South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and it is now spreading into workplaces, communities, hospitals – and schools.
In East Sussex, a secondary school, primary school and special school have been introducing it since 2007 under a pilot programme of training and support, run by the CfBT Education Trust, an educational charity. At Ratton School, as in many secondary schools, behaviour issues tend to revolve around low-level bullying, arguments between friends, and flare-ups between pupils and staff.
"You might, for example, have a situation where a student has told a member of staff to eff off. In the past, the follow-up would have been automatic punishment and exclusion," says Roger Stanley, who led the introduction of restorative justice at the school before his recent retirement.
"But under this system there is a chance for the situation to be gone through and for the student involved to be asked: what were you thinking? What were you feeling? You can get the realisation of what each one is doing to the other and the way their behaviour is having the effect it is having. Maybe the kid will come to feel that the teacher is not so down on them after all. And it also offers some way forward."
Initially, five students and five teachers were trained in formal mediation at Ratton, learning together how to follow set scripts in order to speak to each party involved separately, find out what happened, and identify how people were feeling about the conflict and what they thought should be done.
The principles of the system were also introduced to the whole school through an assembly, and through training for teachers and teaching assistants. Some teachers were resistant but later, according to Mr Stanley, came to realise there were instances where they could have handled things better. "People say it's a soft option but that's a myth. It can be quite tough finding out what effect your actions have had on somebody else."
One of the hardest things for schools is that the process strips people of their roles as pupils and teachers and demands they meet just as people. Teachers used to proclaiming "I am not happy with this" have to learn softer, more neutral approaches, such as "Let's sit down and talk about it." Sullen pupils, used to pushing their problems on to authority figures – "He's always picking on me" – have to learn to take responsibility for their actions. Perhaps not surprisingly, as Ratton School has found, changes occur slowly, not overnight.
However, the school has achieved well over 40 successful mediations, where mutually worked-out agreements have been maintained, and is starting to see changes to its atmosphere. It is now on its second cohort of mediators, who have found the training eye-opening. "You learn to talk to people in a different way about their problems," says Shayan Yaghoobi, 15, "and you learn not to take sides."
"There are quite a lot of psychological elements. You learn about the ego state and how to put yourself into an adult ego-state, whereas when people are in a conflict they are normally in a child ego-state," says Jacob Bradbrook, 15.
The disputes they have handled include a conflict between two girls arguing at break-time, a situation where a Year Nine girl was upsetting her friends, and a clash between a student and a teacher. "What you do is tell them what mediation is, explain the mediation process, tell them everything is confidential, establish how they are feeling, what happened, and then try to find some common ground about dealing with the upset and what they would like to be done," says Nathan Smith, 15.
Happily, there are now few instances when they can use their skills. This new system, along with other changes to the school's exclusion policies and its personal and social curriculum, have meant that poor behaviour is rare these days. But Mr Stanley thinks the life skills that mediators learn in training are so useful that every schoolchild should be given the chance to acquire them.
At Willingdon County Primary School, also in Eastbourne, restorative practices have been threaded through the whole school. Everyone has been introduced to its basic principles, a handful of teachers and 16 pupils have been trained as mediators, the school has woven the system's principles into drama teaching and "circle times", and staff have been given laminated prompt cards to remind them to use positive and neutral language in the classroom.
The school was particularly interested in using restorative practices to resolve disputes among younger children and to deal with problems in the playground, but Josh Bennett,10, a trained mediator, has found that as most children now understand the basic principles, "you don't have to do so much, because people know what to do themselves".
Paul Howard, an educator and expert in restorative justice, led the research project in the three schools – although work at the special school remains at an early stage because of local school structural changes. He emphasises that restorative practice is rooted in an ethos of respect, and needs to be closely integrated into a school's overall development and supported by the head and senior teachers. His paper, "Restorative Practice in Schools", says it "not only entails the acquisition of new skills and techniques but also requires schools to reflect on their value base and culture".
There is growing evidence that these practices work, he says, yet the Government has shown little interest and there was no mention of them in last year's Steer Report on school behaviour. Ratton School, however, is sure the system leads to more responsible and thoughtful behaviour. "The thing is," says mediator Nathan Smith, "you never get the same two people coming back again."
'Restorative Practice in Schools' is published by CfBT (www.cfbt.com)